Overlooking the car exhaust and honking horns of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Chinatown section of Boston, small garden plots with pear trees, radishes, and cucumbers are sprouting on the roof of Josiah Quincy Elementary School and Community Center.
It’s an unlikely spot to find homegrown greenery, but students here are cultivating these patches as part of the Boston school system’s effort to make hands-on learning and community service an important part of students’ academic experience.
Third grade teacher Lai Lai Sheung says the garden has made the study of life cycles more relevant for her students. Every time they work on the garden, they draw sketches and document growth in their notebooks, learn about fertilization, and broaden their understanding of environmental science.
And the garden aids them in serving their community as well. Students work with the elderly residents who live in a community center across the street. Many were farmers when they were younger in China, and they have volunteered to help the children with the gardening.
“Ever since they have had a real garden, they are serious about this,” Ms. Sheung said of her pupils’ involvement. “They are interested. It hits home better this way.”
While many schools around the country try to make learning more concrete for their students, or require them to serve the community, service learning has become embedded in the academic culture of this 63,000-student district.
In 1995, the district’s school committee approved a plan to link service learning with citywide learning standards, state curriculum frameworks, and school-to-career preparation. The idea is not just to have students doing good deeds in the community.
Educators here view service learning as a tool by which students learn skills such as public speaking, computer networking, and applied science by connecting classrooms with communities and career exploration.
Under the guidance of the district’s school-to-career office, hundreds of teachers have been trained as experts who share their best ideas about service-learning projects with colleagues. The different models provide other teachers with examples that they can adapt to their own classroom needs and creative approaches.
“The activities are about learning, first and foremost,” Barbara Locurto, the system’s school-to-career affiliate director, told a group of legislative assistants and education advocates participating in a recent “field trip” sponsored by the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum. “We want our students to develop habits of mind and work.”
It’s Halloween morning and a gaggle of elementary school pupils are sprawled out on the floor at Boston’s West Roxbury High School. A high school junior dressed up as a witch is giving directions to the youngsters from James M. Curley Elementary School, who are here today for a service-learning “festival.”
Scheduled throughout the year, such festivals allow high school students to work with elementary students on various projects. Some of the older students are part of Teach Boston, a school- to-career program to encourage students to pursue a teaching career and return to the school system as educators.
“These are experiences that are really authentic for students,” said Ceronne Daly, the director of Teach Boston. “Last year, one student said to me, ‘Now I understand what it means to be on the other side of the desk.’ ”
Today, high school sophomores are reading stories to 1st graders and hosting a program in the school’s television studio on Halloween safety tips that is aired throughout the school. High school students in the chemistry club are showing wide-eyed 1st graders how a glow stick works.
West Roxbury, like all high schools in Boston, uses school-to-career themes in some way, an approach that seems to be paying off. Boston high school graduates are attending college or taking part in postsecondary training in record numbers, according to a recent report by the Boston Private Industry Council.
Sixty-nine percent of students in the class of 2000 enrolled in two- or four-year colleges or participated in some type of postsecondary training, the report said. That bested the national average of 63 percent.
At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, students in the High Tech Academy show visitors how they help repair broken computers at the school. Students have their own business cards and explain with confidence how the skills they are learning here will help them in their careers.
“We learn hands-on skills,” said Peter Walker, a 16-year-old junior who hopes to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy and pursue a career that will allow him to work with computers.
Kathleen Mullin, the director for school-to-career and technical and vocational education in Boston, likes the direction the district has taken. “You don’t need four walls to learn,” she said. “The world is out there. We are on the move.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Boston Schools Stress Community- Service, Career-Related Themes